My freshman year in high school was a pretty rough time for me. For all intents and purposes, I consider this time in my life my ‘rebellious period.’ where I rebelled against my mother and turned against God. Briefly.
But in that period of brevity, I found myself hanging out with the wrong crowd and did some things that I am not too proud of, such as dating a high school senior who already had a criminal record. Because my mom didn’t like him, I had to sneak phone calls and dates out with him quite a bit. I even skipped school once or twice. I absolutely lost myself in him so that when the relationship ended, as all teenage relationships do, I was devastated.
I tried to cover up my indiscretions by doing all of the right things – praying, reading my Bible, being a good Christian witness. I became so zealous that I annoyed the hell out of everyone around me, even my friends. (Trust, I lost a lot of friends that year). But it didn’t matter to me. I so desperately wanted to be forgiven and accepted that I was willing to do anything to earn that acceptance. I even decided to get baptized to recommit myself to God and start over, even though I had been baptized just 5 or so years before (disclaimer: I did this because I didn’t understand God’s grace and got some really bad advice from well-intentioned friends, the ones I managed to keep).
I still remember the night when my baptism took place. It was a Sunday evening in February. For some reason, the pastor wasn’t there that evening and so an elder in the church was performing the baptism. I didn’t know him as much as I did my pastor, but whatever, he was only officiating the ceremony, right? Wrong! When it came time to share my testimony and why I decided to get baptized, he felt the need to share it for me. Since I was only 15 years old, I didn’t protest. But I wish I would have because his story about ME was all wrong.
Instead of talking about my journey and the themes of redemption and forgiveness that I wanted to share, he said something about how I was this good, faithful Christian. He said that he had known me (which was very untrue) and that he could attest to my commitment to Christ (which he couldn’t).
Now, I don’t know why he felt the need to do this. I don’t know if he felt like I was this powerless little girl who was incapable of speaking for herself. I don’t know if he thought I didn’t know my own story or if he thought he knew it better. I don’t know if he wanted to show that he knew me so well that he could testify on my behalf. I don’t know if he felt that letting me tell my own story threatened his eldership and so told it himself to maintain power. Whatever the case, he was wrong. The best way that he could have empowered me and showed solidarity with me was by giving me the mic and allowing me to tell my story for myself.
I tell this story for what I hope is an obvious reason. Lately, I have found well-intentioned (I hope) folks who want to help people of color doing the same thing that this elder did to me. They want to speak for us, they want to tell our story, they want to take the microphone away from us because apparently they think that we are not powerful enough. But like the elder in my church was wrong, they are wrong. And not only are they wrong, but they tell the wrong story, in the wrong way and as a result, we keep getting the wrong results.
But what is even more disheartening, I think, is that when we tell them they are wrong, they flip out and use our own story against us. Just this week, our ‘ally’ Tim Wise, went on this rant, again, about some woman who was dealing with internalized oppression and how he was going to use his privilege to make sure she got fired from her job. Yes, that happened. When I heard about the story, I was livid because it wasn’t an isolated incident. We have been down this road with Mr. Wise less than 2 months ago when he exhibited similar behavior towards someone else who challenged him on his privilege. It was sad then and it is sad now because like the elder, he is getting it all wrong, and it comes at our expense.
So for Mr. Wise and many others who want to speak for and over people of color, pass the mic. That’s what being a true ally is all about. It’s about opening up spaces that people like myself cannot naturally get into (it has NOTHING to do with internalized oppression) and then inviting us into those spaces so that we can share our narratives about ourselves by ourselves. Otherwise, you are just maintaining the same systems of power that are creating the disparities and stories we are telling in the first place. So if you are not willing to do this, just this fundamental thing, please go do something else. A career in engineering might fit you well.